You’re The Manager: Boro’ and Channel 4

By Pete H

We’ve had some magic moments on the telly – most of which probably came in the FA Cup. In 2002, however, You’re The Manager planned to take our small screen stardom to a whole new level. Now more than ever, the battle for ratings means some mad, bad stuff out of the Alan Partridge book of programme pitches gets undeserved screen time. Mrs Brown’s Boys, anyone? Yet, January 2002 saw Channel 4 and Lion Television storm into town with an idea that’d put Boro’s name in lights. “Hello Broadhall Way, this is Davina…”

And we can’t decide if it was ahead of its time – or still too mad a concept even today.

It’s now 19 years on and little more than a distant memory. For fans who were around at the time, you might remember it. If you hadn’t yet been born, strap in – you won’t believe what we were being promised. Early January saw the start of a manic month; early February saw the plug pulled. Even just the initial buzz got tongues a-wagging in footballing circles and global media. You can only start to think “what if” You’re The Manager did actually make it onto Channel 4’s spring schedule.

We’re ready for our close-up now, Mr Wallace…

You’re The Manager: The concept

You're The Manager: Paul Fairclough speaks at a fans' forum on the venture
Photo: SBFC programme; photographer unknown

It all started in the first week of January 2002. In front of a Fans’ Forum and reported by the offy site at the time, Phil said: “The idea originated from an associate of our manager, Paul Fairclough. Paul asked me to meet with the originators some months ago. They made it clear that Paul was perfectly happy to be the central part in the programme and I gradually warmed to the idea as it developed. It is, after all, a unique chance to put Stevenage on the map and show the country the high level of professionalism that exists in the Nationwide Conference.’

“The simple fact is that the financial benefits to Stevenage from the higher attendances we expect from the higher profile, and the chance to exploit the commercial opportunities that may arise, will allow us to strengthen the playing squad considerably. That has to be our overriding desire, especially in view of our results in the last few months.”

At the time, our results had been all over the place. Any hopes of promotion were already off the cards at the time; a Boxing Day win at Underhill the ray of light in an otherwise dull run of results. By the time the venture came to light, we’d lost five of our last seven league games. Nestled in the hinterlands of mid-table, Boro’ had little to lose on the pitch from an innovative televisual idea. The gains, however, would almost certainly be all off the pitch.

It’d be a six-week series; billed as the “most intense football documentary ever filmed” – until Sunderland ’til I Die, obviously. There’d be four shows per week on Channel 4, plus your usual You’re The Manager’s Little Manager-type shows on E4.

You’re The Manager: How it’d work

The TV crews had already been at Broadhall Way for two months before the big reveal in January; the initial talk being of an Airport-style doc
Photo: SBFC programme; photographer unknown

Hold on. We’ve come this far and haven’t actually revealed what You’re The Manager was  going to involve. The TV crews had already been at Broadhall Way for two months before the big reveal in January; the initial talk being of an Airport-style doc that made Aeroflot’s Jeremy Spake a small star. But that wasn’t quite true. In fact, the plan that Lion Television had was for something much more interactive and much more hands-on. It would put the managerial decision-making power (well, some of it) in the hands of the supporters.

And we all know how football fans can be trusted for their rational judgement.

You're The Manager logo

Now, this is how BORO:Watch (our predecessor site!) described the format:

Pick A Player

This is the first – and most important – feature of two. After a game, producers (we guess) would ask three loyal Boro’ fans to choose three members of the previous starting XI to be potential non-starters next time around. We’d imagine there would be no end of whining at which three fans got the nod. Anyway, that’s not the point. With three lads in line for being dropped, Cloughie got to put forward three lads who didn’t start. And that takes us to the public vote – choosing players:

  1. A (who started the last game) – or B (who didn’t start the last game)
  2. C (who started the last game) – or D (who didn’t start the last game)
  3. E (who started the last game) – or F (who didn’t start the last game)

The vote would be done by telephone (remember, this is 2002) to decide which of these three lads started the next game. Nowadays, you’d have to put up a warning for anyone watching on +1 or catch-up not to vote. Or something.

To be part of that powerful three-fan panel, you’d have to watch all home or away games for the duration of the series. As a six-part commission, we guess that’d be six weeks. On top of that, you’d have to stick around for two hours after each game to share your views – and be happy to appear on TV. Everyone gets their 15 minutes…

Change A Player

This is the second – and less important – feature of the two. And it’d only be available to Boro’ fans. Home or away, you’d all have the chance to text in from the terrace (or seats) and tell which player Cloughie should hook. The boss would then decide who went on in place of the player who you chased off. It’s not unlike what happened in 2015 when Mark Hughes turned in a shambolic 30-minute performance against the Daggers; fans leaving the bench in no uncertain terms about the course of action needed.

Anyway, opposition fans couldn’t vote. Boro’ supporters a) would register first and then b) get a code on the gate.

Fans were given the inside scoop on You're The Manager at a special forum

The players’ reaction

Back in 2002, the Herts Mercury paid more attention to Boro’. Our Ed lived in Ware at that time, so The Comet wasn’t our first port of call. We didn’t even know much about it except for its name. But you didn’t ask for our life story. The reason for telling you this is because we’re now going to share the players’ reaction to all this – as reported by the Mercury.

Dean Greygoose said: “The first reaction was that we couldn’t believe it. In the dressing room, everything went quiet. It was a shock. Everyone thought they (Channel 4) were taking the mickey. As the days have gone by, the idea has taken hold a bit more. And, as long as we don’t let it overshadow our football, I don’t mind.”

Jason Goodliffe, meanwhile, said: “One of the words I can use to describe my reaction is amazement. It’s something I never really thought could happen. It’s still a little unreal, and until it starts happening, it’s hard to take in. I must be honest and say that I’d feel a little disappointed if I was one of the players chosen to be replaced, but I’d accept it.”

The manager’s reaction

And what did boss Paul Fairclough have to say? “There are things I need to iron out with the chairman. There are several blips to sort out, but they are very important blips. I’m now waiting for some confirmation… The programme is secondary to what I’m doing. In fact it’s not even a close third. I want to keep my job and I want the club to be successful. That is a joint priority.”

Phil Wallace and Paul Fairclough talking about You're The Manager at a fans' forum
Stevenage’s premier Simon and Garfunkel tribute act. Photo: SBFC programme, photographer unknown.

The Conference reaction

Of course, You’re The Manager wouldn’t just impact the reputation of Stevenage Borough Football Club. Conference authorities fretted about the integrity of the competition. You can sort of understand why. At the time, forces were fighting a big battle to secure a second promotion place into the Football League.

For Phil, the benefits to the Conference were clear; telling the official site: “It gives us an opportunity to broaden the profile of Stevenage Borough and the Nationwide Conference nationally at a time when the Conference will be fighting desperately for fairness to apply in its bid for a second promotion place to the Football League. This failed for a variety of reasons last summer and, after the League and FA have now had a full year to debate it and find a solution, we hope we’ll be successful this time round.”

Conference authorities were lukewarm towards the concept; chief executive John Moules saying; “We have to make sure that the profile of the Conference is looked after. We will examine the proposed content of the programme thoroughly, but at the moment I cannot see any reason why it should not go ahead.”

Encouraging? Perhaps. But the opinion wasn’t shared across the Conference landscape. One bored – sorry, board – member told the Independent back when it was more than a jaunty online shell of its former self: “If I was Mr Fairclough, I wouldn’t be very happy. They also need permission to film matches as we have a television contract with Sky.”

Other reaction

The PFA felt compelled to comment too. Brendan Batson, its deputy chief executive, said: “It sounds like democracy gone mad. Perhaps if results go well, the board will think they don’t need a manager.”

News of the planned TV show spread far and wide throughout the footballing world

You’re The Manager: The closing scenes

The idea started to unravel almost as soon as it went in front of the Conference board.

First, the bit about choosing the substitutes was binned off. One other Conference board member – or maybe the same one – told the Independent: “We agreed the programme can go ahead, and Channel 4 will pay the league a £15,000 fee. How the manager picks the team is up to him, but we won’t sanction people deciding on substitutions during as a game, which was thought to be unethical.”

Phil remained amicable in the circumstances, telling the official site: “I fully support the position of my colleagues on the board. They simply want to ensure that the image of the Conference, which is at an all-time high, is protected. I have exactly the same feelings for my club and have stated them publicly time and time again.”

With the issue not due to go back before the Conference board until 31 January, Lion TV then halted filming in case the show was axed. Channel 4 remained upbeat, as you might expect; publicity manager Matthew Robinson saying: “We know that there are always two sides to a discussion and if there hadn’t have been debate about the programme and its format, I think we would have been disappointed. It’s all about coverage and raising the profile of the club.”

Then, however, the almost inevitable news came. The suits said no and the whole show never made it to air.

The reaction

The news didn’t go down well with one person working on the show. “It is a real disaster. Now we have either got to ditch hours of footage or show a documentary about a team no one has heard of. Everyone thought it would definitely get the go-ahead but they have pulled the plug at the latest stage possible.”

Of course, there was no documentary. And a team no-one had heard of? Want to have a chat with Alan Shearer about that?

You’re The Manager had been due to start with our home game against Woking in February 2002. Based on how that match turned out, we could’ve done with some extra input. Phil, meanwhile, told the official site: “The Conference has 22 members. If our fellow clubs are not happy with the detail of this series, we’ll respect that.

“This episode is over now but [we’re] a progressive club and will always be prepared to look over the edge to see what’s out there. It’s my belief that interactivity between fans and clubs will continue to force its way into football at all levels and sooner or later somebody will do this. We could have been the first… but we’ll get on with our lives now and continue to try and improve our league position and… reach the final of the FA Trophy.”

So what happened next?

Well, we did reach the FA Trophy final; losing 2-0 to Yeovil Town. In the league, we were smack bang in the middle at the end of the season. With 15 wins and 17 defeats, our 55-point haul put us 29 points short of champions Boston United and just 11 points ahead of the three sides who plunged through the trapdoor. Oh, and we’d soon have a new gaffer. No – ITV4 didn’t pick them from the East Terrace. But, in the end, fan input would be the least of Cloughie’s worries; the legendary gaffer leaving the club two months later.

Mind you, we can now look back and perhaps wish that You’re The Manager came along during the desperate reign of Wayne Turner.

Anyway, that’s the story of a TV programme that could’ve put this club on the map. But it never happened. Instead, we had to go and do the bloody hard work ourselves; winning promotion to the Football League eight years later and bloodying some noses among the old boys’ club in doing so.

Here’s the question, however. Has no-one tried to bring back You’re The Manager as an idea because it failed first time around? Is it because the mere concept is too much even for a world that gave us Love IslandTiger King and whatever else is hot on Netflix at the moment? Or is it because the integrity of the beautiful game is far too sacred for that sort of outside influence? Just kidding on that last one – we do have VAR these days y’know…